Old Mutants, New Ideas: Bill Sienkiewicz's New Mutants #19A column article, The Full Run by: Keith Silva
In August of 1984, Bill Sienkiewicz starts a 13-issue run as the artist of The New Mutants. Equal parts Molotov cocktail and thousand-year flood, Sienkiewicz's style represents the art of the possible, remakes the superhero comic and blazes a trail for others to (try to) follow.
This column is an attempt to find out if there is still some "magik" in that pulpy paper with its ads for The Last Starfighter, The Helen of Toy Company and the Olympic Sales Club. Pop in a "cassingle," pour some Jolt and let's get abstract.
Abstraction takes many forms. In terms of art (and for the purpose at present) let's go with this one (works for Wikipedia) from Rudolph Arnheim's Visual Thinking: "Abstract art uses a visual language of form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world." In other words, "reality," has been put on notice. Now, I'm treading on "knows-enough-to-be-dangerous" territory here, not to mention using-Wikipedia-as-a-crutch; however, I want to focus on the tail end of Mr. Arnheim's explanation: "…which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world." Which. May. Exist.
New Mutants #19 plays out like one of those "hospital episodes" in non-hospital TV dramas. Dani is dying and the docs are cutting and cutting deep. The New Mutants assemble at the hospital for a vigil and to "protect" their teammate from her ursine attacker. Colorist Glynis Wein bathes all of the surgery scenes in shades of crimson and blush which amps up the crisis even if it is a little too on-the-nose. Claremont introduces two civilians, Tom Corsi of the Westchester County PD and a graveyard shift nurse, Sharon Friedlander and not for nothing as the two "red shirts" will play pivotal roles going forward. Sam "Cannonball" Guthrie puts the pieces together and reckons that the bear is building up enough psychic steam to finish what it started and only the New Mutants stand in its way. On the whole, this issue is a lot of hocus-pocus and second-act set-up for the imminent showdown that plays out in the next issue.
Before Sienkiewicz took over on art, The New Mutants was penciled by Bob McLeod -- Claremont and McLeod are credited as co-creators of the team -- who gave the culturally diverse band of misfits their look in Marvel Graphic Novel #4. In the ongoing series -- the first X-Men spinoff series, BTW -- McLeod would pencil issues one through three before Sal Buscema steps in on issues four through seventeen. McLeod would continue to contribute covers as well as inks once Buscema was on pencils full-time.
McLeod and Buscema's art represents a superhero "house" style, conventional and homogenized. In their matching uniforms it's hard to tell the New Mutants apart if not for their height, their (what we would call "culturally-insensitive" today) accents and their non-PC telltale ethnicities -- the Scottish girl has red hair, the Native American girl has braids and the South American is (literally) fiery.
McLeod and Buscema do yeoman's work as they corner the "gawky" teen look that says as much about The New Mutants as anything else. Sienkiewicz's dynamism turns any comparison between him and his predecessors into a discussion about apples and oranges. Under Sienkiewicz's charge, Sam's flat top is never so flat and Rahne's wavy brain bouffant gets leveled and parted which gives her a harder edge even when she's crying (her tears are ever-present in #19). For example, when the team bumps up against the reality of what they need to do, Sienkiewicz composes all five members in a heroic "getting the band together" moment and arranges them from most accessible (Sam and Rahne) to a touch more mysterious (Roberto and Amara) to downright enigmatic, Illyana -- a corona (more like a blob) of black silhouettes her body, an indication that even outsiders have outsiders.
A "which-may-exist" image that stands out in this issue is the anesthesia/oxygen mask that Sienkiewicz draws when Dani is in surgery. It's boxy with hard edges and hoses that switch positions each time Sienkiewicz draws it. A fantastical-looking contraption, the mask looks like it could double as a prop in a "60's sci-fi B-movie; it presents as "medical," but not in a Primum non nocere kind of way.
In one panel, Sienkiewicz draws the mask in close up as it dominates the frame. Wein's incandescent reds burn and add a creepy urgency to the situation. Sienkiewicz slashes ink across the panel in streaks and squiggles as Rahne attempts a mind-link with the heavily sedated Dani who swims up from unconsciousness to get a message to her friend. As Dani regains consciousness in her attempt to communicate, the ER docs go into a call and response of shouts: "Blast it! Administer more anaesthetic! Her system can't handle the strain -- we're losing her!" The drain that Rahne's mind link puts on Dani adds a sadomasochistic quality to the image, an uncanny interplay between pain and kink, a verboten quality that makes the scene feel off; a visual reference independent from the world.
Sienkiewicz's tenure on The New Mutants marks what's considered a "dark time" for the series and there is little in the "Demon Bear" story arc to lighten said scholarship. Dark doesn't mean humorless as Sienkiewicz slips in a joke -- what we travelers of both time and space in the 21st century call an "Easter Egg" -- at the top of page five for fan boys and X-Men insiders alike. It turns out that Cannonball self-identifies as a member of the "Terry Austin Fan Club." Aren't we all?
This "nod and wink" to a noted inker who has gone before takes place in what is supposed to be a family waiting room. Corsi and Friedlander are there to try to help the team sort out the night's events and give advice as how to proceed. At the bottom of the page, Friedlander walks off to find "some pillows and blankets" with the promise to return "as soon as I hear any news -- good or bad -- I'll let you know." She departs not down a descript hallway, but into a void, into uncertainty. She could be walking into the mouth of a cave or a bear, it doesn't matter, the point is, nurse Friedlander … she gone.
Art creates sensation and mirrors emotion. Friedlander's exit is a throwaway moment (like the Terry Austin joke), a tiny detail in a tiny panel and yet it screams like a banshee about fortitude and self-resilience in the face of hard realities; qualities that it takes to stand out in the crowd, to be a new mutant or to draw one.
Although tall for his age, eleven-year-old Keith Silva did not possesses the prescience to imagine that one day he would have a Twitter (@keithpmsilva) or a blog (Interested in Sophisticated Fun?)or write for Comics Bulletin -- halcyon days indeed.